On Monday, I captured the Twitter story about Anne Cooper’s quest to navigate the process to ‘befriend’ an isolated person, playing by the rules and processes of modern day society. It made me appreciate even more the wonderful work that is happening through the Green Dreams Project mentioned in a recent blog. So near to Annie, (North East England) but yet so far.
Anne is 50. Boy, a lot of things have changed in the last 50 years. Thank you, Anne for writing this very honest and heartfelt account. Anne captures her
childhood community experience in a beautiful and very
thought-provoking way. The story really provides a context for her
recent experiences and shows us how we are perhaps letting ‘stuff’ get in the way of human connections. Over-complicated processes, bureaucracy and the need for good local information were strong themes of last week’s ‘Care in the Digital Age’ conference in Kent.
I come from a small village in the North East of England. The village was made up of 5 rows of terraced houses; everyone knew everyone and although I didn’t know it or appreciate it at the time there was a strong sense of community. We lived about 6 doors away from my grandma and granddad. We went there after school and watched Jackanory before Mam came home from work; she used to clean in our school. The village had two shops, Emily’s at the bottom and ‘the top shop’. It wasn’t unusual or an elderly person to stop one of us kids on our bikes and ask us to pop to Emily’s for something or other and it all went on their ‘book’ that they paid every week.
Later we moved to a new house and, although it was a larger part of the network of villages, my Mam by then worked in the library and we knew everyone. Mam would know which older people were not well as they didn’t come for the books she had picked out and put to one side for them and someone would be asked if they could check to see if they were OK. We also had a very old lady living next door to us, she was reclusive and had dozens of cats but every Christmas morning she would come to us and at about 11 o’clock have a glass of sherry.
These experiences of my younger life have taught me that community is important and that we can help people to stay well and have good lives in communities but it needs us to make connections in the way we used to, finding those who may be lonely and alone and drawing them further into the fabric of our lives; when those older people used to stop me on my bike and ask me to pick up some bread, they were also asking how our Mam was and would I let Emily know they might be late in paying this week? It was about networks and connections and human contact.
These days my life is very different. Although I live in a community I spend little time during the week at home. The houses are different too, most people have erected high fences and walls that prevent chat in the way we used to down the back way – the labyrinth of yards at the back of the houses.
I value older people. I like listening to them and chatting about their lives and they like to hear how my son is doing and looking at pictures of us all. I feel that I don’t do enough to help people around us at home who may be lonely and just need company and someone to have a cup of tea with. My heart broke when I watched the Hairy Bikers ‘Meals on Wheels’ programme where one man cried when they arrived; he hadn’t spoken to another soul since the last time they had been. I wanted to do something. But it’s a real challenge for me, I don’t spend much time locally – my work takes me all over the country – so I don’t know the community infrastructure, other than at church and in fact I have so little ‘spare’ time.
I had an idea: as a family we could befriend an older person, we could invite them to join us at some of our weekly family events. For example, we always try to have one proper meal together and one more person at the table would be little effort. I could pick up any extra bits of shopping for someone and my husband is very handy for odd-jobs – surely we can contribute this?
First of all I went to Age UK, knowing that they have a befriender scheme. This proved tricky, they are only open during main office hours and of course that is when I am working and have the least free time. It took me months to find a local number, the nearest place was 10 miles away – they don’t have a scheme near us.
For a while I was daunted but talking about it on Twitter spurred me on and someone pointed me at Contact the Elderly and I was delighted to see that there was a local group. Contact the Elderly run friendship groups for lonely, isolated older people. They get collected one Sunday a month by a volunteer driver and taken to a different volunteer host’s home each month for afternoon tea. The drivers stay and then see the older guests safely home. As the drivers are mainly the same each month and it is the same group of older guests, good friendships are formed. Ah! This was something I could do and take pleasure in.
Unfortunately, despite my making contact, I was only to discover that the local group had folded, as the organiser had left the area.
I feel frustrated and disappointed. This is, however, a complex problem. I only have small amounts of time to give and not enough to take on the commitment of running the group. I have few local connections other than our friendship network and our family. In my discussions with organisations like Age UK it became apparent that they struggle to find funding for the administrative/organisational posts that they need to make this happen, often funders exclude this from the things they will provide.
I feel unsettled. I can’t take on too much more but I feel we have more to give. The local community isn’t like it was when I was brought up and the only way I feel I could connect is potentially through church – but I’m not a church go-er. Communities could hold the key for making some lives better. How can we liberate some of this for the better? I just don’t know how I can help.
Please post comments to tell us what you think…